Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bill Riley

Regardless of the fact that he was the third black player in National Hockey League history, it's almost a miracle Bill Riley made it to the big leagues at all.

He played junior hockey for the Halifax Canadians (where his teammate was future NHL'er Errol Thompson) and finished for the Amherst Ramblers in 1968-69, scoring 64 points including 32 goals.
After that 1968-69 season Bill gave up pursing hockey at a higher level. He received no interest from the NHL or any other professional league, not because he was black but because, in the words of Breaking The Ice author Cecil Harris, was "blessed with more toughness, resiliency and perseverance than hockey talent."

Riley moved to Kitimat where he worked as a welder at the Alcan aluminum plant. But he just couldn't quit playing hockey. In 1971 he joined the Kitimat Eagles to play senior hockey in a now long gone industrial British Columbia League. Bill was tearing up the league, winning the scoring title in each of his three years there. In 1972-73 Bill had 88 points (56 goals) and in 1973-74 he had 118 points (76 goals).

His 1973-74 season was so spectacular that he caught the attention of NHL scouts. He was invited to both the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers training camps in 1974. He chose Washington as he figured he would have a better chance to catch on with an expansion club rather than the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Nobody even expected him to make the Capitals farm team, but Bill proved everybody wrong. He had an outstanding camp and was signed and sent to apprentice with the Dayton Gems of the IHL.

Bill went on to play in one game for Washington during their inaugural season in 1974-75. During his appearance in a Caps uniform in 19 74-75 he made history as it marked the first time two colored players played on the same team in the NHL at the same time. Rambunctious Mike Marson also played for the Caps. The rest of the season Riley played for Dayton where he quickly became a teammate's favourite with his bruising style. Bill racked up 279 Pim's in 63 games for Dayton.

Although he was appreciated by all of his teammates, winning over the fans was another story. The fans around the league, and especially in Dayton, were unthinkably brutal towards him. There were stories of fans making monkey sounds and even throwing chicken at him.

Riley tried not to let it bother him.

"I felt so sorry that black families that came to the games to support me had to hear those ugly things from cowards in the stands. I'll tell you what, though, it used to energize me. I think you had to look at it that way. You couldn't let those cowards beat you.

Bill remained in Dayton for the entire 1975-76 season and scored a 66 points, including 35 goals, in 69 games. He also racked up a mind boggling 301 penalty minutes. That was the season that the Washington management started to realize that Bill had a fine potential of becoming a very useful power forward in the National Hockey League.

Although Bill again started the 1976-77 season in Dayton it quickly was obvious that Washington couldn't afford having him in the minors. Bill scored 19 goals and 34 points in just 30 games for Dayton before being called up by the Capitals. He was officially signed as a free agent with the Caps on January 19, 1977.

Bill went on to play better hockey for the Caps then anybody could have imagined. He was one of Washington's best players, if not the best player during the second half of the 76-77 season. Bill scored 27 points (13+14) in 43 games, while picking up 124 PIMs. The most impressive part though was the fact that Bill was a +4 on a team that only had one more player with a plus rating (Bob Sirois +1). In the standings Washington was the 16th team out of 18 and yielded 86 more goals than they scored. So that, plus the fact Bill was a rookiem made his plus-minus rating even more impressive. Not surprisingly Bill became the "rookie of the year" in Washington, as voted by his teammates.

Washington's coach Tom McVie explained why Bill got a shot to play on the Capitals.

"We needed someone to stand in front of the net and pay the price." It was exactly this willingness to do that which gave him a spot on the team. Bill was far from a classic skater, but he made that up with his bruising body checks and an "in your face type" of hockey.

Tom McVie was also quoted as saying:

" He's one of the most determined athletes I've ever known," which tells us a little bit about Bill's all-out approach to the game.

That approach didn't stop in the NHL.

"In the NHL I fought Dave Schultz, Tiger Wiliams. I fought all the tough guys of that era (the 1970s)."

After his fine 1976-77 season he was a regular in the lineup. Early during the 1977-78 season (November 20, 1977) Buffalo's Jim Schoenfeld's skate accidentally cut the tendon in Bill's right ankle. Although he completed the game, this injury forced Bill to miss the next 21 games. Although he scored in his first game back and was in good form, he didn't top his performance from the previous year. Bill finished with 25 points (including 13 goals) in 53 games. He often found himself skating on the top line with scorers Guy Charron and Bob Sirois, establishing himself as crease crasher and fierce forechecker.

Sadly, one of the most blatant stories of racism against Riley occurred back in his hometown of Amherst, Nova Scotia. After signing a $100,000 contract with the Capitals, Riley tried to purchase a cottage on the outskirts of town where he and his childhood sweetheart Joanne could summer. The bank simply wouldn't process the transaction, as the all white neighborhood quietly moved to prevent him from moving in. It didn't matter for these bigots he was the hometown boy he made it all the way to the NHL. Riley ended up suing the bank successfully, making national headlines in the process.

Left hobbled by the tendon injury, Bill only played in 24 games for Washington in 78-79 and split his time between Washington and Hershey (AHL). He was left unprotected by Washington before the WHA / NHL merger draft. Winnipeg picked him up and he played briefly for Winnipeg in 1979-80 (14 games - 5 points) before being sent down to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs (AHL) where he had over a point per game (64 points in 63 games).

Bill never returned to the NHL. He was signed as a free agent by the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 25, 1981 but never played for them. Instead Bill went on to play for the New Brunswick Hawks (AHL) where he captained the Hawks to a Calder Cup championship in 1981-82. The team had future NHL superstar Steve Larmer in the lineup as well as 1980 Olympic Gold Medalist Jack O'Callahan.

In 1982-83 Bill became the Moncton Alpines (AHL) player/ assistant coach and in 1983-84 he returned to Nova Scotia where he played for the Voyageurs (AHL). Bill put up some pretty descent AHL numbers (304 points in 391 games).

Bill remained active in hockey after retiring as a player. He went on to be the Moncton Golden Flames director of marketing and public relations for three years. He was also the co-coach of the Moncton Junior Midland Hawks, reaching the Centennial Cup round.

But Bill wasn't ready to hang up his skates just yet. He went on to be the playing coach for the St. John's Sr. Capitals of the Newfoundland Senior League where he played between 1986-89. He scored 163 points (64 goals and 99 assists) in just 66 games the last two seasons there. In 1988 Bill was also a member of the Hardy Cup winning "Port Aux Basque Mariners".

In 1989-90 Bill became a coach and GM of his hometown team, the Amherst Ramblers, where he once had played junior hockey. He remained there for eight years, winning two Atlantic titles with four Centennial Cup appearances. He later went on to various positions with the junior Moncton Wildcats and Miramichi Timberwolves.


Anonymous said...

I saw Bill Riley as a youth when he played for the Dayton Gems in the mid 70's. He was one of my favorite players.

Ross said...

Bill Riley is a friend of my family. He is a wonderful person, my grandfather had season tickets in Moncton when Bill played there. Then when Bill was traded to Halifax he used to dread playing in Moncton because he could hear my grandfather yelling his name. When my grandfather passed away in Springhill NS Bill Riley attended the service.

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